Report released for fatal Mississippi helicopter crash

One person was seriously injured in the 2015 crash. The pilot and a USFS employee were killed.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a 90-page “Learning Review” about the March 30, 2015 crash of a helicopter that occurred during prescribed fire operations on a National Forest in Mississippi approximately 20 miles north of Gulfport. The accident took the lives of Forest Service employee Steve Cobb, contract pilot Brandon Ricks, and seriously injured another Forest Service employee on detail from Montana.

The helicopter was igniting a prescribed fire by using a plastic sphere dispenser (PSD), a device that drops small balls that burst into flame after they land on the ground. Steve Cobb was serving as the Firing Boss [FIRB] and the detailed employee was operating the PSD out of the right-rear door.

According to the pilot’s personal flight logbooks, he had accumulated 6,471 total hours of flight experience, about 6,300 hours of which were in the accident helicopter make and model. The owner estimated that the pilot had accrued 22 additional flight hours in the 90 days that preceded the accident.

N50KH Bell 206-L
The helicopter that crashed was N50KH, a Bell 206-L.

Before the flight the engine on the helicopter failed to start on the first try, but the second attempt was successful. Later over the prescribed fire the aircraft made about 12 passes over the project and had been flying for about an hour when the crash occurred.

Below is an excerpt from the USFS report:

The PSD operator recalled they “were flying along 25-to-30 feet above the highest tree…things were going really well,” and they were nearly through the first bag of balls when he heard two alarm warning buzzers go off simultaneously or nearly so followed immediately by the pilot stating, “We lost power,” and FIRB saying, “We’re going in; we’re going in.”

The PSD operator swung his right leg over the PSD machine and back inside the helicopter, just as he had practiced in his head when he envisioned this scenario. He didn’t want his leg broken or trapped under the helicopter if it were to roll on its side. As he tightened his lap belt and pushed his back against the seat, hands on his knees in the crash position, he felt the helicopter tip backwards and to the right slightly. The PSD operator believed the pilot initiated this position purposefully, possibly as part of an autorotation. The descent through the tree canopy was not violent, and the helicopter slipped through the trees tail first. The impact with the ground was “abrupt.” The PSD operator felt the lap belt catch him; the impact knocked the wind out of him.

The PSD operator remembers the helicopter coming to rest more or less upright, and it was quiet. The PSD operator could hear breathing over the intercom system and “crackling” as the balls they had just dropped began to establish fire. He thought to himself, “I’m still alive!” He unbuckled the lap belt and unhooked the gunner strap’s tether from the helicopter, then reached forward to jostle the pilot, yelling at the pilot and FIRB, “We gotta get outta here.” He exited the helicopter from the right side and once on the ground, moved towards the front of the aircraft. He yelled again, “We gotta go,” calling each by name while realizing they were unconscious and that he wouldn’t be able to move them with his injuries. As it was, he was having difficulty breathing and standing up. He now heard the roar of the fire that had grown from small individual spots of fire to a wall of flames surrounding them; he knew it was time to move.

He turned and faced the wall of flames and thought, “I just survived a helicopter crash; I am going to live.” He recounted, “I started walking, through the wall of flames 10-to-15 feet thick, then all the glowing ashes on the other side and residual heat…hands over my face and screaming into my hands and saying, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall’…everything was glowing and I just kept going…I could feel myself burning…the watchband melting on my wrist.” The PSD operator walked approximately 900 feet in a westerly direction to reach the 415A road and the western edge of the burn unit sometime between 1448 and 1451.

After a while he was found by firefighters and was eventually transported by ground ambulance to a waiting air ambulance which flew him to the University of Southern Alabama Hospital in Mobile, Alabama. His injuries included fractures of two cervical and two lumbar vertebrae, left ocular and left side ribs; and intestinal and hernia tears.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the helicopter experienced a “loss of engine power for reasons that could not be determined”. The helicopter did not catch fire when it hit the ground, but it was soon ignited by the spreading prescribed fire, hampering the NTSB investigation.

The USFS Learning Review emphasized several issues related to the accident — not necessarily causes, but items for discussion. One was the decision to ignite the project from a helicopter rather than from the ground.

The primary purpose for utilizing helicopters for aerial ignition in this region is to mitigate the exposure of ground resources to the hazards of hand-lighting units. For Unit 1459, like most units on the De Soto Ranger District, a combination of the vegetation, terrain, and fire behavior make hand-lighting units inefficient and hazardous. Flame lengths of greater than four feet combined with difficult walking conditions raise a red flag for a burn boss concerning firefighter safety. Plants such as palmetto (Serenoa repens), gallberry (Llex spp.), ti-ti (Cyrilla racemiflora), and smilax (Smilax spp.) when combined with needles from longleaf, slash, and Loblolly pines can create flame lengths in excess of 10 feet with as little as a two-to-three year accumulation of dead material. These species are also very difficult to traverse. Smilax vines can ensnare firefighters and drip torches and stop them in their tracks. This area also still has some large dead fuel concentrations as a result of Hurricane Katrina. In these areas people working in the woods may encounter downed timber that can stop heavy equipment from forward progress.

Using an airborne resource for igniting a fire rather than personnel on the ground does not eliminate risk. It transfers it.

Another issue was the required flight characteristics of a helicopter while igniting a fire with a PSD. An air tanker when dropping retardant has to fly low and slow to be effective. Similarly, with the current versions of the PSD, a helicopter’s recommended speed should not exceed 50 mph (43 knots), while the preferred altitude is 300 feet above ground level (AGL).

Hovering out of ground effect (HOGE) is the typical flight profile.

The last data from the helicopter provided by the Automated Flight Following (AFF) before the crash indicated it was at 132 feet AGL and traveling at 43 knots.

From the report:

It is clear how organizational processes influenced the acceptance of risk. As a result, risk assessments did not consider the flight profile, as it was already determined that low/slow was necessary in order to accomplish the work. The fact that the recommendations for airspeed and altitude were heavily influenced by the capability of the PSD likely influenced a gradual decay over time of the options and decision space for the pilot to maintain optimal combinations of airspeed and altitude. The fact that this is a successful tool available for conducting prescribed burn operations, sets the stage to “justify” its use, rather than to prompt the agency to look at better options or technology.

The acknowledgement of these flight conditions in agency guides likely affects the deliberate acceptance of a “low and slow” profile as necessary for the accomplishment of the mission. A low/slow flight profile makes sense because it is suggested within written procedure. Over a period of time (4+ decades), confidence and acceptability of the flight parameters strengthens with each successful mission, along with a slight departure from the awareness of the hazards associated with the flight profiles. This is a demonstration of how the production goals creep into mission planning to dominate the protection goals without recognition of such. In this case, all required policy was followed and personnel were conducting their work within the operational norms set up by agency policy and culture.

The Learning Review has numerous recommendations, including modifying the existing PSD machines to enable the helicopter to fly higher and faster. Another is to invent an entirely new method of aerial ignition in order to mitigate the low and slow flight profile.

Aerial ignition by drone

Typically when aerial ignition is used to light a prescribed fire or a burnout operation on a wildfire, it is done with a large plastic sphere dispenser mounted in a conventional helicopter, as in the photo below.

Sitgreaves Complex Fire
Dennis Kirkley of Kaibab Helitack loads the plastic sphere dispenser (ping pong ball machine) with plastic spheres. Grand Canyon Helitack’s A-Star was used to do aerial ignition on the Sitgreaves Complex in northern Arizona August 8, 2014. Photo by Tom Story.

The University of Nebraska is developing an unmanned aerial vehicle that can use plastic spheres to ignite fires. What could possibly go wrong?

Below is an article from the university written by Leslie Reed.

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University of Nebraska drone aerial ignition fire
Sebastian Elbaum (from left), Dirac Twidwell and Carrick Detweiler have developed a new patent for setting range fires with small drones. The drone injects a liquid into plastic spheres to start a delayed fiery process that allows the balls to fall to the ground before igniting. Elbaum and Detweiler are holding flaming tennis balls similar to those carried by the drones. University of Nebraska photo by Craig Chandler.

A new drone under development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln could change the way wildfires are fought – and encourage the use of prescribed burns for conservation purposes.

The Unmanned Aerial System for Fire Fighting, or UAS-FF, is under development by a multidisciplinary team of UNL experts in drone technology, fire ecology, conservation and public policy.

The Great Plains, California and other locations around the world are seeing an increasing number of bigger and more intense wildfires in recent years, said Dirac Twidwell, a team member and a range ecology expert and faculty member in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.

Twidwell said it’s a trend that results from land management practices, including a decline in human use of fire for ecosystem management, as well as exotic species invasions, drought and climate change.

The aerial robot would have the ability to ignite and monitor fires in remote areas. Novel technology would allow it to operate in harsh environments with limited supervision, enhancing the capabilities of fire management personnel.

“The idea is to provide a safe mechanism for people to perform fire management tasks with less risk and higher efficiency,” said Sebastian Elbaum, a computer science and engineering professor and drone researcher.

The team has successfully performed indoor tests on a prototype. Carrick Detweiler, a faculty member in the computer science and engineering department, said the researchers have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration and hope to have authorization from the FAA and fire departments for a field test of the fire-starting drone as early as March.

“Unmanned aerial devices have the potential to carry out key resource management strategies and could help us deal with something as big as the international increase in severe wildfires,” Twidwell said.

Prescribed burns, where grasslands are burned off according to a predetermined plan, are widely recognized as an effective conservation tool that eliminates invasive species, restores native plants and reduces the risk of wildfire. However, they are underutilized because of perceived safety concerns.

A recent study from Twidwell’s lab shows prescribed fires are actually less less risky to landowners than other commonly used management techniques, and using drones would further reduce the risks posed by lighting prescribed burns by hand and using all-terrain vehicles and suppression vehicles in rough and remote areas.

Many federal agencies use helicopters to ignite such areas, but it’s too costly to use helicopters on private lands.

Elbaum and Detweiler built upon their prior research as co-founders of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems, or NIMBUS, Laboratory to design aerial robots small enough to fit in a firefighter’s backpack, yet smart enough to safely interact with the environment

The drones carry a cargo of ping pong-like balls filled with [a chemical]. Before being dropped through a chute, each ball is manipulated and injected with [another chemical], creating a flame after several seconds. A similar method now is used to start fires for conservation purposes with helicopters and hand-held launchers, Detweiler said.

“We wanted to use proven technology that the prescribed-burn community is already familiar with,” he said.

The drones would have the ability to drop the balls in a precise pattern over the landscape – on the perimeters and interior of a rectangular plot, for example. Detweiler said the robots could be programmed so they don’t fly into areas that are too hot or windy for safe use.

The team is seeking grant funding to develop the next generation prototype with more sophisticated sensing and actuation capabilities, including the ability to operate as a swarm.

Other team members are Craig Allen, research professor and director of Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research, and Lisa Pytlik Zillig, research associate professor at UNL’s Public Policy Center. James Higgins, a mechanical engineering graduate student, designed the prototype’s mechanics, while Christian Laney, a computer science and engineering undergraduate student, was responsible for the control electronics.

The drones could be an especially effective tool in battling Eastern Red Cedar, an invasive tree species that some experts view as one of the region’s most serious ecological threats. It causes extinctions of many grassland plants and birds, collapses forage production important to the beef industry and is contributing to dangerous wildfires.

Detweiler and Elbaum said the drones also might be used in place of manned aircraft and hotshot teams of firefighters dropped by parachute in some wildfire-fighting situations.

“What we’re doing is supporting the expert and the user in the field,” Elbaum said. “The drone and the operator work together to make the job safer, more efficient and cheaper.” “